I learned something this past week. It was early evening, and we were getting closer and closer to bedtime. My son, Nathan, was busy playing with his Legos while his sister, Elisabeth, was running around the house in her hot pink tutu. It felt picture perfect until I heard some pretty violent yelling coming from our sun room. I entered the room to see Nathan pushing his little sister while simultaneously throwing his Legos across the floor. I immediately reprimanded him and sent him to his room. He stomped his way through the house as if he were King Kong or Godzilla. He was clearly upset. But what right did he have to be upset? In my mind, he was the aggressor. After speaking with him for a few minutes about how he should never hit his sister and how he should never throw his toys or stomp around the house, Nathan spoke. Through tears and frustration he told me that "Elisabeth took my toy from me". At first I didn't want to hear it, but then I started thinking to myself that Nathan, in a small sense, was a victim. His response was absolutely wrong and needed to be dealt with, but his little brain was much more receptive to my correction when he realized that I recognized that he was wronged as well. He was open to hearing me out because he trusted and knew that his dad cared about his frustration and his feelings.
It was then that a phrase came to mind that I picked up from the book Evangelism: Doing Justice and Preaching Grace by Harvie Conn, "sinned against". In his book, Conn challenges the church to view the world through the lens of "sinned against" rather than sinner. This was a paradigm shift for both my wife, Deanna, and me, as we really came to understand that people are the way they are because of what has transpired in their lives. Sin rises out of context. I am in no way discounting the fact that humanity is born sinful. We certainly are, and this is evident through Scripture and through experience (I would argue that our sinful nature is also a product of being sinned against, via the serpent and Eve's sin, but that's another blog post for another day). But the fact of the matter is that more often than not, individuals are living in response to what has transpired in their lives. As pastor Reid has mentioned, “hurt people, hurt people”. The reality is that everyone experiences victimization at one point or another, and this victimization can often lead to sinful patterns in people's lives. As a result, the posture the church takes toward the lost, broken, marginalized should be one of compassion and empathy. Nathan was among the sinned against because his sister stole his toy, and in response he sinned. He needed to be taught that his response was wrong, but he also needed to be understood.
Jesus understood this and exemplified this when he entered into the story of creation and into the stories of individuals and communities. He did not stand in condemnation over people, but rather he called them to something better. He absolutely recognized that they were sinners, and he was very clear in calling people out of their sin. But he also acknowledged that they were victims, individuals and communities who have been “sinned against”. We see this as Jesus engages with woman caught in adultery in John 8. He recognizes the fact that this woman is a victim, but he also calls her to repentance.
As we go into the world, we need to follow the example of Christ. We need to enter into the stories of those whom we engage with throughout our week. With compassion, empathy and care, we need to love our neighbor. We need to recognize that our spiteful co-workers, vindictive bosses, and anyone else who wrongs us throughout their week probably have some things going on in their lives. We also need to acknowledge that the homeless guy asking for money, the prostitute, the gang member, and all of those people who we might believe ourselves to be better than also have a story, and their story might be the very reason they are who they are. Engage their story and call them to a life of faithfulness to God through Jesus Christ. My mind goes back to Nathan who was minding his own business playing with his Legos when all of a sudden his entire world was disrupted. As a result he sinned, but his sin was birthed out of his context. He needed to be understood, and in compassion, I needed to call him to repentance.
Some questions that might be helpful are as follows:
Where do you see brokenness or chaos?
How can you engage the brokenness and the chaos with compassion and order?
How can you, in similar fashion to Jesus, clothe yourself in your neighbor's brokenness or chaos, empathizing with them, weeping with them, mourning with them?
Is their brokenness in your own home? In your neighborhood? School? City? How can you thoughtfully engage in the brokenness?